Thursday, 24 December 2009

The icon of the nativity: an explanation


I’d like this morning to look at an icon: it is the icon of the nativity. And I’d like to look at it because it seems to capture so much of the Christmas story.

Just a very brief words about icons. They are not meant to be a photograph of the event or person. They are images which are meant to bring out the inner meaning of the event – they show us the event from the perspective of heaven. And they are very stylised, and for those who have not seen this sort of thing before, at first they look very odd to us.

So here it is: the icon of the Nativity – It is 600 years old, and was painted in north Russia, in Novgorod.

1. It tells the story

Far removed from our sentimentalised versions. It is a background wilderness.

Mary is the dominant figure, but she is not the central figure. She has just given birth and is reclining on the cloth.
The central figure is the baby, surrounded by the cattle, and I note that Mary takes her shape from the shape of the child.
The baby is born in a cave. The bible doesn’t tell us exactly where he was born, but simply that he was laid in a manger. Many people kept cattle in caves. Also, in the bible, the cave is often the place where God meets with people.

And so here we have the manger, the animals and the angels, the star, the shepherd, the wise men, the midwives and Joseph.

2. We see layers in this story. And the lower layer tells the story from the human perspective.

The midwives bathe the baby. This really was a human birth. It involved all the human paraphernalia of human birth. People are getting on with everyday living and serving.

Joseph is sat some way out of the centre of the picture. He is hunched up, doubting everything that is happened. Joseph was the first person to doubt the virgin birth. And most commentators say that the figure talking to him is the devil in the disguise of a shepherd. Joseph is thinking through all that has happened, and Mary is looking at him with immense sympathy.

For many of us, this lower tier is where we are at.

Some of us get incredibly busy at Christmas, and if we focus on anything it is the human baby we remember has been born
Or some of us do sit there on the sidelines. We take time to think it through. We wonder what it is all about We wrestle with the issues without ever committing ourselves.

But there is one thing to help us here. Next to the devil, counterbalancing the devil, is the tree. It is put there to remind us of the verse in Isaiah 11:1-2 ‘There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit’. The way to answer the doubt of Satan is to go to the word of God.

3. This upper tier of the icon shows us the story from the divine perspective

The baby is the Son of God. The divine world is often represented by a sphere. The three rays represent the three persons of the Trinity.

And here we have the star, which here is not shown as a natural star, but as a divine light – similar to the light with which Jesus shone when he was transfigured.

The angels on the left know what is happening and they praise God. The angel on the right, who is above the shepherds, holds a towel. It is a symbol of service, but it also is the symbol of the proclaiming of the good news of what God has done. This is the angel in Luke declaring to the shepherds: ‘Fear not, I bring you good news of great joy for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord’.

4. The middle tier. This is where heaven and earth meet.

They meet in the baby laid in a manger.
And if we look in more detail at the baby, we realise that the cave could be a tomb, the manger could also be a coffin, and the swaddling cloths could also be the grave cloths. He is the one who came to save us by dieing.

Luke picks up on this:
Luke 2:7 ‘She wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger’
Luke 23:53 Joseph of Aramathea took the body down from the cross and ‘wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone’.

The ox and the donkey recognise this Jesus. Isaiah 1:3 tell us that ‘The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib’ (in Russia they didn’t have donkeys, and so the donkey has become a horse).

It is a picture of how the coming of the Messiah will transform all of creation

And the shepherds hear the good news and they rejoice. He is blowing his trumpet or flute. The tree beside him is full of fruit. The animals are well fed.

And the wise men – here wearing rather esoteric crowns that look more like traffic lights – come with their gifts: an act of surrender. Kings bowing before the King.
The thing that got to the men and women of the past, and the thing that really we need to rediscover, is the utter utter astonishment that the eternal God, who created all things, who is beyond time and space, chose to become a created being within space and time.

St Romanos, writing about 1500 years ago says:
‘Today the Virgin gives birth
to him who is above all being,
and the earth offers a cave
to him whom on one can approach.
Angels with shepherds give glory,
and magi journey with a star,
for to us there has been born a little child, God before the ages.”

And Augustine writes about 1700 years ago:
Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father he remains,
From his mother he goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
Unspeakably wise,
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at his mother's bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
and small in the form of a servant.

And so finally to return to this icon, everything rotates around this baby laid in the manger. And there are a number of diagonals here, which take their cue from the position of the baby.

There is a line from the women serving to the wise men giving their gifts, and from the shepherd blowing his trumpet to the angels praising. And there is a counter movement: between Satan speaking to Joseph and the angel proclaiming the Good news.

And so I finish by leaving us again with Joseph, bowed down by doubts. All he needs to do is to choose to turn from Satan, to look up, to look to Mary – who in iconography a symbol for the church, the people of God – to look to the Christ and to hear again what the angel has already told him: that the child laid in the manger 2000 years ago was and is the Son of God.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Unlikely Hero: a baby


Today we look at an unlikely hero: a baby

Now I realise that babies are astonishingly special

I did get in big trouble one Christmas time, many years ago, when I described a new born baby as looking like a shrunken Buddha.

And one of the ways our society deals with Christmas is to strip the story of any reference to God, and simply focus on children. Christmas is for children:

Take nativity plays. Don’t get me wrong. I love nativity plays. One of the problems of the three tier school system is that they don’t do nativity plays in Middle schools. So age 8 is the last time our children will do a nativity play

But, you have to be honest and admit that the plot line for most nativity plays is pretty thin. ‘Yes’, says the producer, “Let’s go through the story. Mum is pregnant and riding on a donkey. Dad – well we’re not sure he is dad, but the less said about that, the better – leading the donkey. They get to the place where they’re going and can’t find anywhere for the girl to have her baby; and then an innkeeper says that she can have the baby in a barn at the back. Then some shepherds and some men dressed in funny clothes come and visit her. Yes? And what else? There is a special star, good. And angels, good. But is that all? And there is something about a special star. Is that it?’ Good for a few headlines, ‘Baby born in a barn’, good for a bit of dressing up. But is that all?”

And nativity plays often end up with some little moral tale about children being little angels and stars and that they are our future.

So are we really saying that Christmas is all about children – about the joy and the hope that they can bring. Listen to this. It will either make you weak at the knees or else seriously sick.

‘When a child is born’. Is that Christian?

A ray of hope flickers in the sky
A tiny star lights up way up high
All across the land, dawns a brand new morn
This comes to pass when a child is born

A silent wish sails the seven seas
The winds of change whisper in the trees
And the walls of doubt crumble, tossed and torn
This comes to pass when a child is born

A rosy hue settles all around
You've got the feel you're on solid ground
For a spell or two, no-one seems forlorn
This comes to pass when a child is born

And all of this happens because the world is waiting
Waiting for one child
Black, white, yellow, no-one knows
But a child that will grow up and turn tears to laughter
Hate to love, war to peace and everyone to everyone's neighbour
And misery and suffering will be words to be forgotten, forever

It's all a dream, an illusion now
It must come true, sometime soon somehow
All across the land, dawns a brand new morn
This comes to pass when a child is born

The unlikely hero is not just any baby. The unlikely hero is a very specific baby.

The real story is far more gritty and far more awesome. It involves high personal risk for Mary and for Joseph and for the baby; it involves paranoid political rulers; and this part of the story ends with the family fleeing from infant genocide. And at its centre is a specific child.

He is the baby who was born in Bethlehem when Quirinius was governor of Syria, who was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. (Luke 2:1-7)

And the reason that this particular baby is THE hero is because this particular baby was the Son of God. He was the unique, eternal child of God. He has always been there with God. He was there in the beginning of time with God. It was his word that created the universe. It is his word that sustains the universe. It will be his word that brings the universe as we know it to an end.

Augustine said,
Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father he remains,
From his mother he goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
Unspeakably wise,
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at his mother's bosom.

What is astonishing is that the Son of God becomes a human being, and not just a human being, but a human baby: totally helpless, totally defenceless, totally dependent

God could have come as an adult, and still died for us. It happened on several occasions in the Old Testament.
Melchizedek: ‘He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest for ever’
The angel who wrestles with Jacob
The person who appears to Joshua
Suddenly, God appears. Superman comes – with no origins, no family history. He is who he is. Indeed the Christian hope is that one day something like that will happen.

But the awesome thing is not just that ‘the word was made flesh’, but that God was born as a baby. He became fully human.
God’s messengers in the OT often come as awesome figures
God himself comes as a human baby

So what is going on here?

1. The Son of God was born as a human baby in order to fulfil prophecy and show that God is faithful.

In Isaiah 7:14, Ahaz is given a sign. It is a sign he has not asked for. It is a sign he has not deserved. But the sign will be that ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel’.

Micah confirms that prophecy: ‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who in labour has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel’ (Micah 5:2-3)

And the one who is to come is described not only as the Son of God, but also as the Son of David. That is why we have all those long genealogies in the bible. It matters. God gave a promise to David that one of his descendants would be THE ruler of Israel, the Messiah, the one who would establish God’s Kingdom here in a new heaven and a new earth.

2. The Son of God was born as a baby in order to identify himself with us

He became as one of us. And because of that:

a) We know he knows. He grew up as one of us. He was dependent on his parents. He had brothers and sisters. He experienced body changes and all the hormonal stuff that teenagers go through. He shared our human desires. He knew tiredness, hunger, thirst. He experienced joy, grief, satisfaction, disappointment, the love of others, the hatred of others. He faced death. He was, as the writer to the Hebrews says, ‘tempted like us’.

And yet, through it all, he displayed absolute dependence on, obedience to, trust in and love for God his Father in heaven. That is way he was sinless.

b) He identified himself fully with us in our humanity, so that we might become like him in his divinity, become like him in his nature and in his love.

Galatians 4:4-7

He redeemed us so that we might become like him: so that we might be adopted as sons and daughters of God, so that the Spirit of God can live in us, so that we become heirs of God.

Irenaeus first said: ‘The Son of God became a human being, so that human beings could become Sons of God’

3. The Son of God was born as a baby in order to show us the way of God

God saves the world by sending a baby.

A baby, by human standard, may be a promise of something future, but at the time it is powerless, weak and has no wisdom.

The key thing here, as with all these unlikely heroes, is that God saves us not through that which is, by human standards, strong and wise, but through that which is, humanly speaking, weak and foolish.

[Jacob; Joseph in prison; slave people; Moses; Rahab; Gideon; Ruth; Saul (he only started to go wrong when he began to think he was someone); David]

The way of God is not the way of human power and wisdom. It is the way of love, of stripping oneself of power, of giving up rights, of identifying with others in their weakness and vulnerability, in order to enable them to have LIFE in God. The Christian life never consists in standing over another person. It consists of kneeling down before them and washing their feet.

It is Philippians 2:5-7

4. The Son of God was born as a baby to show us the wisdom of God.

We need to recognise that God, as a baby, is more powerful and worthy of worship than the greatest human ruler. The ‘foolishness’ of God is greater than the most profound depths of any human wisdom.

And that is so important because it tells us that our salvation depends upon God, totally and completely. I have no resources in myself.

This is so alien to our world. I’ve been struck by how many times I have heard people say, ‘You’ve got to look to the strength that is in you – for achieving your dream, improving yourself, getting what you want out of life, finding peace. Well, I guess at one level it is true. But when we look deeper it is profoundly untrue.

Before God, I have no resources in me. I cannot save myself. Salvation (and by that I don’t simply mean getting into heaven, but ‘salvation’ as the bible uses the word in its fullest richest sense, becoming fully like Jesus Christ the Son of God) depends not on my gifts, or strengths or ability, but completely on him.

This does involve a swallowing of pride, but it is also incredibly liberating, and extraordinarily democratic. You do not need to somehow make yourself acceptable to God. It is not about how gifted or good or clever you are. You do not even need to understand it. This is open to everyone – to the Einstein or to the person with severe learning special needs.

All we need to do is, with the wise men, kneel before a human baby who is also the Son of God.

So the unlikely hero is not just any baby. The unlikely hero is the Son of God who became a human baby, and who was wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger.
We fast forward 33 years, and we find that baby again being wrapped in cloth and laid in a tomb. The words that Luke uses in 23:53 are almost identical to the words used in 2:7 – and the point is the same

Jesus died on the cross to fulfil scripture
Jesus died in order to identify himself with us. He took onto himself our curse so that we might take onto ourselves his righteousness
Jesus died in order to show us the way of God – the way of love and self-sacrifice
Jesus died in order to show us the wisdom of God – that our salvation does not depend on us, but on him.